Whispering Secrets in Kansas, by Ava Winters

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"Whispering Secrets in Kansas"

a Western Historical Romance Novel,
by Ava Winters


A fearless heiress. Her mysterious driver. Their lives will be at risk. Will they be able to keep each other safe?

Tessa Richardson is a young heiress to her family’s big fortune. She expects to remain on top by being a hard-hearted businesswoman, so she keeps her true feelings to herself. She may look like a girl-next-door, but Tessa is regal in the way she carries herself. The only way to really get to know her is by riding next to her. As her new driver does. Will she let him get a true glimpse of her soul?

Raphael Rivera is different from all the previous drivers in the Richardson estate. He has elegant hands for a manual laborer and his shirts are always white and pressed, not quite what anyone would expect. A crooked smile that may be perceived as mocking and a friendly demeanor are part of his charm. A charm that has managed to keep him safe, until now. But how can he escape from his past that is finally catching up with him?

When the truth about Raphael comes to light, Tessa will also have to deal with the threats of her surroundings as everyone seems to want her out of the way. Now that they are both at risk, how can they keep each other safe and manage to finally live happily together?

Chapter One

Chapter Divider

She was more than just irritated. She was furious.

As Tessa Richardson paced in the study—her study—she crossed her arms and wondered what was taking so long. No one made her wait this long.

This was her house. As the head of Richardson Mills and Shipping, she had both responsibilities and power to her name. People typically responded to this by respecting her authority and accepting the orders she gave them.

The study was still designed as her father, Herbert Richardson, had built it some twenty years before. A two-story ceiling allowed for one wall to be decorated with Venetian stained-glass murals, with the other three walls covered in bookcases and books. A large mahogany desk sat in the center with three matching chairs. It was a grand room—but there was no time to appreciate it.

“Are you certain you wish to do this?”

Only one of the chairs in the room was filled. Tessa couldn’t be still long enough to sit down. But the other woman in the room was calm and composed enough to sit primly in her seat like a statue. She was always calm and collected in a way that Tessa could only wish she was.

Her father’s older sister, Ivy Rose, had been with the family ever since Tessa’s mother passed away in childbirth. She had needed a mother figure and someone who could care better for a child than a businessman busy building his empire.

Not that Tessa faulted her father. Maintaining a business was hard work. And Ivy Rose had done her best. She still tried her best.

Even if she had a tender heart. The woman sat perfectly still as a statue, the image of grace and humility. Her dresses were mildly out of date, something she refused to change no matter Tessa’s insistence, but she always looked lovely. Tessa swore her aunt had never aged. Ivy Rose had soft pale features with gorgeous dark hair that was always pinned in place with pearls.

Aunt Ivy Rose wore her maroon dress that emphasized the blush on her cheeks and the fine golden locket around her throat. Today, the only thing out of place on the matronly woman was the crease in her forehead that hinted at a frown.

“I do.” Tessa cleared her throat as she crossed her arms.

It was important to accept hard tasks and be prepared when they came. That was something her father had taught her. Challenges would come and go. But success only came by being both willing and prepared for them. She could hear her father talking to her now about the value of hard work.

“You have to be brave and be bold,” he had told her when she was just a child.

Tessa had tried her best to take his words to heart. Since his passing two years ago, Tessa did everything she could to uphold his legacy. He had taught her everything he knew, knowing how clever she was. She had smarts and wanted to use them. Though the idea of inheriting her family’s fortune was pleasant, she cared more for her role as a businesswoman.

Just as Tessa swore to herself that she would drag the girl in there by the hair if she didn’t appear in two minutes, the door cracked open.

She whipped around, eyes narrowing as the maid stepped mutely into the room. Her eyes darted around the room as though she knew just how guilty she was.

Brigid O’Dare had been hired three months ago to support the household. Not only had her training necessitated an extra week until she could properly dust, but now she had been caught twice where she did not belong.

“What took you so long?” Tessa demanded.

“Tessa, remain calm,” her aunt reminded her before turning to the maid. “Please, come in. Take a seat, dear. We wish to speak with you.”

The maid glanced between the two women before taking the chair beside Ivy Rose Richardson. Brigid was a squat type of girl with frizzy red hair that she could never keep properly under the cap. Once, Tessa would have been jealous of such a vibrant color, but she knew that would have never worked with her porcelain skin.

Crossing her arms, Tessa narrowed her eyes. “You’ve worked here for three months. Surely you’re able to maneuver the halls and reach this office from any room in the house in under five minutes.” She pulled the pocket watch from her tweed skirt. “And yet it took you thirteen. Why is that, Brigid O’Dare?”

“I… It’s a big house,” Brigid mumbled in her squeaky voice, ducking her head. The thick Irish brogue did nothing to help, though Tessa had dealt with enough people to catch the words. “I was busy. Scrubbing the floors, you see, in the parlor.”

Tessa squinted. “And why would you be scrubbing the floors in the parlor when they were scrubbed yesterday?”

Her aunt glanced over. “Perhaps she was confused?” Though she loved her aunt dearly, Tessa knew Ivy Rose could be too tender at the wrong time.

“Yes,” Brigid gasped. “I was confused! That’s all.”

Tessa frowned. “That doesn’t explain why you tried to dust the library last week and this study last night. Your cleaning skills are subpar, and somehow I find you in every wrong place possible.” She glared at the maid to deliver the final words. “You’re fired.”

Brigid’s eyes widened as she covered her mouth. “What! No, you canna do that!”

Even her aunt looked started, raising a hand to her chest. “Tessa, are you certain?” The woman had been there for her all her life since her mother had passed. She had never cared to dive into concerns that were not her own, though she tried hard to set a good example for Tessa in all that she did. Which Tessa appreciated, especially how her aunt didn’t intercede like the rest of their family could.

But this didn’t stop her. Not now. Too angry to speak to her aunt just yet, she focused on the maid.

“I can and I am! You’re inept and a fool! You’re not worth a penny, Brigid,” Tessa spat. She jerked on her tight jacket for effect. “Pack your things and leave. I want you out of this house before the dinner bell. Or I’ll throw you out myself.”

The girl whimpered noisily.

“Tessa,” Ivy Rose spoke up in a warning tone. “She could still learn.”

Except Tessa wasn’t done. Once she had a nail, she had to drive it in. Offering a disbelieving laugh, Tessa shook her head. “On top of that, I’m missing some delicate documents. Some very, very valuable documents.”

“I wouldn’t steal!” Brigid clasped her hands together. “Please!”

“No?” Tessa demanded. “Not even for my Uncle Silas?”

Silas Franklin had married Cynthia Richardson, the third child and youngest daughter of her father’s family. They had lost her five years ago to tuberculosis. The family had struggled for a long time to recover from such a brutal loss.

Loss had never been easy for anyone in their family. Her father’s death had certainly not been helpful only three years after his sister passed. There had been little time to mourn before she had forced herself to move forward and pick up his business again. She couldn’t just sit around and wait for ruin. It wasn’t in her character.

Even after these difficult losses, her uncle hadn’t made her life easier.

Though he was her legal guardian for the next two years until she turned twenty-one and properly inherited everything bequeathed to her, Silas Franklin wanted and believed that he deserved to run Richardson Mills and Shipping. While he handled plenty of the work already, he wanted Tessa completely out of the picture.

Usually, he did this by complaining and occasionally undermining her before their investors. When they had family suppers, he made continual suggestions that she turn the real work over to the real men.

She had grown used to the remarks and worked even harder to prove him and everyone else that he was wrong. This would be the second time he attempted to slip someone into her life to learn about her work. First, it had been an assistant last year who had nearly gotten away with it. But the assistant had confessed much sooner than this when she had caught them digging around her desk in the middle of the night.

Though Silas had been a good uncle, he was not her ideal guardian. It was a tricky balance for the family. He could make children laugh and spoil them with sweets. But now that Tessa was a businesswoman, he couldn’t accept her new role. He wasn’t of a mind that women could be smart. Though he still treated her well enough as a young woman and his niece, Uncle Silas couldn’t grasp the idea that she loved her father’s company and wanted to run it herself.

It was typically just family business where he was the most annoying. But setting a spy in her household was crossing the line. Tessa didn’t appreciate the interference and had been suspicious of Brigid since the beginning.

“What do you mean?” Ivy Rose frowned, only now learning of this. “On what grounds?”

“On the grounds that I’m missing my documents,” Tessa reminded her in frustration before turning back to the maid. She had been so caught up in her thoughts that she hadn’t paid attention to the first reaction that Brigid had made. “Well?”

Brigid didn’t bother to wipe away her tears. Probably, Tessa supposed, to make her appear more sympathetic. It was disgusting. Tessa could hardly look at the girl, who had started to whine. “Please! I can do better. I promise. I’m not a spy, I’m not.”

That made Tessa hoot. “A spy! I never used those words. And I wouldn’t call you one, seeing as you’re so terrible at your job. Terrible at cleaning and at spying. You’re fired, Brigid O’Dare—if that even is your real name.”

“Won’t you let her explain?” Ivy Rose begged for leniency.

“I won’t,” Tessa refused. She stopped before Brigid as she put her hands on her hips. “Well? What are you still doing here?”

Brigid’s eyes widened before they narrowed. She shouted something Tessa didn’t catch before lunging forward. There was no time to scream as Tessa fell to the ground, grunting as the wind was knocked out of her. She heard something crack and knew it was her hair piece. But she couldn’t worry about that then as the maid tussled with her.

“You’re the worst!” Brigid continued shouting. “I can’t believe I took this job!”

“Get off me!” Tessa screamed. She yanked on the girl’s arms, moving them so she no longer had the weight of the maid on her. “I’ll have you sent to jail!”

The other girl gave a terrible scream before swatting Tessa’s shoulder and climbing back to her feet. Nearby, Ivy Rose stood staring.

But, not willing to let the girl off that easy, Tessa grabbed at the maid’s skirts. Brigid cried out, tugging as something clattered to the ground. The noise caught Tessa off-guard, so the maid took that opportunity to yank herself free and escape the room while swearing.

Breathless, Tessa laid on her stomach, panting in disbelief. She blinked, ignoring her aunt’s twittering as she found what had made that clattering noise. It was the blueprints that had gone missing, for the industrial corn mill.

Her eyes gleamed as she grabbed the scroll. “Aha!” she crowed as she climbed up. “I told you.”

Ivy Rose hesitated. “I’m still not certain…”

Tessa scoffed. “No simple maid would have known what she was carrying unless someone told her what to keep an eye out for. No one else knew what this was until my meeting four days ago, where Uncle Silas was in attendance.” She glared down at the blueprints. “Three months, and I didn’t catch her!”

Ivy Rose joined her with a sigh. “Tessa, dear, you don’t need to treat your home as a place of business. Oh, dear.” She paused as they watched Brigid leave.

She was still shouting and cursing. “I’ll get you one day!” Brigid shouted. “Just wait and see!”

The idea of ever seeing the pathetic mess only made Tessa groan. “We’ll see about that. Now she can go scream at Uncle Silas, instead.”

“I’m not sure that’s how you should see this finished,” Ivy Rose started delicately.

“Why not?” Tessa pointed out testily. “This is my house, my household, my maid. I fired her, and now, she is not my problem. I fired her because she was stealing. Stealing, Aunt. I was right, remember? You saw the blueprints!”

Fixing a nonexistent wrinkle, her aunt nodded. “To be certain, yes. I am only trying to caution you, my dear. Just because you find yourself in the right does not give you the right to treat others however you desire. Such treatment of others may bring hardships and a fall from grace if you are not careful.”

Tessa scoffed at the idea. “Don’t worry. I know good help is hard to find, but I’ll keep trying.”

Sometimes, she knew, the only way to do business was to be brave and be bold. Even if people didn’t like it.

Chapter Two

Chapter Divider

It was a calm day by the shore.

Though there were no waves crashing into the port, there was still plenty of noise. Seagulls were singing, men were shouting, and boxes were being moved about. Anywhere someone looked, they would see action happening.

The day was busy. A stranger in a strange place, Raphael Rivera leaned against a lantern pole to study the area around him a little bit better. He’d never been to this port before, though they all began to look the same once a person had been to a few of them.

But it paid to keep a close eye on one’s surroundings.

On top of the usual bustle, it appeared to be a particularly successful market day. There were more than just dock workers and day laborers talking and working. Booths were set up, tables were used, and women had flocked to the scene. He’d stayed put for two hours, and still everyone was there.

Another party of women, three this time, passed by and glanced at him. He felt their eyes wander over him from head to toe, and it sent a nervous tingle up his spine.

He grabbed his cap and pulled it lower to conceal his face.

They didn’t know, so they couldn’t possibly recognize him. That was what he told himself. They could just tell that his skin was darker, and that had caught their attention. It caught a lot of attention of folks who weren’t used to being around this area on the Mexican gulf.

Still, he couldn’t suppress the urge to glance over his shoulder to make certain no one else was watching him. Or following.

Another breeze passed by, ruffling his collar. It was salty-sweet, keeping him cool on such a hot day. The humidity was more extreme than he was used to. Glancing around, he wondered if he was done waiting.

His eyes searched the port carefully for several minutes before he slipped a hand in his pocket to check his money again. It wasn’t much, but everything else had been used to get him to this point. Raphael still wasn’t certain of where exactly he wanted to go. But further than this.

Five dollars, two quarters, and a dime.

The number hadn’t changed since he had checked an hour ago. Raphael sighed before putting the money back in his pocket. That was all he had to his name now. His parents would have been disappointed.

But they weren’t alive. A lump formed in his throat as he looked back up. Squinting against the sunlight, he straightened his faded and patched shirt before moving forward. The day was half over, and he needed to get moving if he wanted to have a plan for tomorrow. And that night.

He held back a sigh as he started walking around. The fare price was higher here than a few other places he had traveled to recently. Everything he had in his pocket would not take him to Florida or even Louisiana. And even those places weren’t far enough to hide.

The options before him were few and far between.

Taking his time, Raphael browsed the various groups and gangs of sailors working around the port. He kept his head down and his ears open. From pier to pier he went, staying quiet and staying alert.

“I’m only saying that you can’t trust your captain if he’s not going to tell you what’s on board.”

“What? Craig, we told you to stop being paranoid.”

“Is Captain Parker smuggling?

“Parker? Are you kidding me? Stop listening to Craig.”

“Craig’s more superstitious than any sailor I’ve ever known. More paranoid and more superstitious.”

He slowed down, curious about the bantering sailors. The friendlier they were with each other, the more likely they might be with someone else. At least, that was what he hoped.

The tallest of the men, Craig, scowled to himself as the thinnest man nudged him. Four more men joined the five to make a larger group of nine. Introductions were made between the parties, who came from the three surrounding ships. Raphael left his head down, but he kept track of the names shared.

“Sailing with Captain Parker, huh?”

“Aye.” Craig’s skinny brother, Thom, nodded. “He’s never sailed straighter. True Christian and true sailor.”

“And a true prick,” their cousin Lionel added. The three German men elbowed each other with grins before turning to John Trevor. “What of you, then?”

John Trevor gestured with a thick thumb to the vessel behind him. “Riding the Sweet Mary out in the morning with Captain Hennel. The man doesn’t talk much, so that’s helped the crew out. We do as he says, and he doesn’t bother us none. Best ride of my life. Or it would be, if Ragnut here would wash his socks once in a while.”

As they talked, Raphael noticed how men came and went. Two men left to go to their ship, and another one came who he didn’t know. The circle of men talking around the empty barrels was flexible as necessary, changing with the tide of people.

“I’m not going barefoot.” The short man, Ragnut, who hailed from an unfamiliar European country, scowled. “And you can’t force me. Captain Hennel hasn’t got a problem with my knots, if you remember.”

It was now or never. He took a deep breath and steeled himself before stepping out of the shadows and meeting up with them. A short nudge to Thom’s shoulder and the man-made space unconsciously, caught up in the conversation and not the world around him. Around any of them. Raphael kept his eyes moving and alert as he found himself part of the circle.

“My knots are fine,” John Trevor defended himself. “It was the weather. Too rainy to make any knot work. Besides, it’s not the knots you should be worrying about. It’s the new cargo. Heard we’ll be taking cacao. That’ll open us for pirates and raiding.”

Immediately the men around him began to complain, moaning about running into pirates from one place or another. There were intriguing stories of clashing knives and laughter about hard nights in the brig for punishments. Raphael stayed attentive to learn and watch.

It was his last hope that someone there could help him. His other options weren’t looking too promising. He’d come from the west and was hoping to continue east. There was no chance of traveling on foot, and the wagon trains didn’t need a tenderfoot like himself. Not that he would consider himself a tenderfoot, but every man had his own opinion.

But Raphael was on his last option. He needed to get out of town. Already, he’d spent three days near the port to keep low and find a way out. Nothing had panned out—it appeared that he would either have to find a way to travel by boat or start swimming against the current while the tide was still low.

“Ay.” He found a chance to chime in as they talked about traveling south. “But the weather is worth it. Hot, perhaps, but at least it’s not this damp.”

The three Germans laughed loudly, clapping their hands on their legs. John Trevor sighed, and two other men rolled their eyes.

“That’s true,” Ryan Pierre agreed with him. “But you must admit that it’s more than dry.”

Raphael paused thoughtfully, weighing his words. He didn’t want to be overly friendly. But he couldn’t be rude. Sailors would stick together, after all. “Drier and hotter, true. And sand only in your hair when you want it.”

More laughter rang out as the conversation continued, changing as John Trevor told them about his experience in the Carolinas. “And the food,” he continued. “Sweeter than anything you’ve tasted before.”

“What about Mexico?” Raphael offered. “There’s food that makes it feel like your tongue is on fire.”

“I’ve had that in Jamaica,” Lionel chimed in eagerly. “Ach! It was a rough go around, but I made it through.”

He was still laughing when John Trevor glanced at Raphael again. The man had said nothing about him before, nor hardly noticed the man beside him. But Raphael knew that gaze and tensed in preparation for something. His hand dropped down to his gut, waiting tersely.

“Say, speaking of Mexico,” John Trevor spoke up. “Is that where you’re from? What’s your name again?”

Biting his tongue, Raphael held back a sigh. He had spent hours upon hours practicing losing the accent. Though his name would give away his heritage in a heartbeat, he could always choose something else to go by. But it was the accent that people could not ignore and could always place him with. He held back his frustration as he put out a hand.

“Raphael, at your service,” he offered politely. And grudgingly put out a hand when John Trevor offered his.

Craig stood across the barrel from them as he chuckled. “At your service?” he echoed. “I haven’t heard a sailor talk like that before.”

“Ay, no one speaks that fine,” Ragnut muttered. “What is he, a gentleman?”

John Trevor shook his hand but didn’t let go for a minute. He offered a foolish grin to Raphael before turning back to the group. “Perhaps. Because he’s not a sailor,” the man announced to the circle. Only then did he let go to point. “That man had hardly worked a day in his life.”

Confused, Raphael glanced at his hands. When he noticed the other men were leaning forward, he shoved them into his coat pockets. He considered his options quickly, knowing this could turn sour. Even just a sailor sharing the wrong joke could be beaten up by his own crew. He wasn’t interested in any of that, so he spoke fast to resolve their suspicions.

“It’s true,” he confessed. Putting on a sheepish smile, he tried to look as ridiculous as possible. He pushed back his cap and set it at an odd angle. He tugged at his jacket but kept his gun hidden. “I’m not a sailor. But I am looking to become one.

“At least, for a short while,” he corrected himself as the men looked at him skeptically. Since none of them had punched him yet, Raphael took this as a good sign. “I joined you fine sailors in the hopes of finding employment on a ship. Would any of you know of a captain hiring?

The men glanced around at each other before John Trevor gave him another stern look and then nodded. “My ship needs a new man. We lost one at sea two weeks ago and could use another hand. If the second mate hasn’t already found a man, I’ll talk to Captain Hennel if you can take the vacancy. We’re headed to New York.”

That was even further away.

Raphael suppressed a grin as he tucked his hands back into his pockets and nodded his thanks. Soon the men broke apart to finish their errands. He in turn followed John Trevor to the next pier over to find out about the available work.

He was in luck. The captain was superstitious about taking him on, but John Trevor said finding a man this fast had to be a good omen for their travels. Within minutes, Raphael was shown where to move their cargo to and from the ship. Setting his jacket away, he went to work.

The first lesson he learned on the ship was that there was always work to be done. His muscles strained, but it was a pleasant distraction. Raphael concentrated on his efforts and learning from the men around him as they prepared to ship off.

He paid close attention to everything on Sweet Mary but quickly forgot about the world on solid ground. As he regrouped with John Trevor and two other sailors to handle the main sail, he turned his back to the dock just as a new stranger showed up.

Chapter Three

Chapter Divider

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